Walesa's tightrope

Lech Walesa is a free man. If it had not been for the all-important changing of the guard in Moscow, the outside world no doubt would have given more attention to the occasion of his release. But this makes the event no less noteworthy. It appears to open up an opportunity for finding some modus vivendi between people and government that will enable Poland to begin moving forward again.

Much will depend on what the leader of the outlawed Solidarity trade union does as he walks his ''tightrope,'' as he puts it. Mr. Walesa has become the symbol of Poles' struggle for greater freedom, and the ardent welcome given to him upon returning home after 11 months in detention points to his continued popularity. But this does not mean he is ready to take up the cudgels for Solidarity. Indeed, it can be assumed that he would not have been freed at all without coming to some understanding with the authorities regarding his role in the banned union.

What Mr. Walesa will do is, of course, far from certain. But it is clear that he is in close touch with the Roman Catholic Church and that the church is central to what happens next. Despite the suppression of Solidarity, the church has been working quietly with the Jaruzelski regime to defuse tensions. Both sides have adopted a more moderate stance - the church urging public calm and the government finally announcing a visit by the Pope to Poland next June. Their efforts - plus the show of police power - combined to forestall a national strike called by Solidarity for Nov. 10. The next day the government announced the imminent release of Mr. Walesa.

What does it all mean? The church has been morally supportive of Solidarity. But of late it has been talking about facing up to realities; namely, that Solidarity is no more. It has not abandoned the long-term struggle for freedom but it believes that popular resistance will only lead to further bloodshed and repression (not to mention Soviet intervention). Instead it is urging cooperation of workers with the new officially decreed unions - even while holding the government to its pledge to allow the unions to be independent.

This is not likely to satisfy Solidarity militants, but it is perhaps the only way to ensure Solidarity's survivability. The free trade union movement is, after all, an idea. An idea can be stripped of its form but that does not make it impossible to invest it with another form. If Mr. Walesa chooses to make a bow toward the new unions, he risks losing his influence, but many workers, weary of the violence, might just rally to a call to cooperate with the government. In other words, to join the new bodies - and try to shape them along the principles of Solidarity. Realistically, the new-style unions would not be allowed to become a political power that could threaten the communist party. But Moscow was, after all, ready to tolerate an independent trade union as long as it stuck to union activities. That goal should still be attainable.

The change of leadership in the Kremlin may even provide some leeway for maneuver. Yuri Andropov certainly will brook no challenge to party power at home or abroad. But his tolerance for economic reform in Hungary once the revolution of 1956 was put down suggests that he is amenable to reform. A more sophisticated approach to governing is expected. Certainly it is in Moscow's interest to get the Polish economy moving and help alleviate its own economic burdens.

As for General Jaruzelski, he continues walking his own difficult tightrope, fending off pressures from all sides. He has laid the ground for a lifting of martial law before the end of the year, and that would be an achievement of sorts. But he still faces the dilemma: You can force Polish workers back into the factories but how do you get them to work with vitality and enthusiasm? How, having crushed a popular movement, do you restore a sense of national purpose and self-respect?

No less today than a year ago when Lech Walesa was interned is there a need for a spirit of compromise and dialogue.

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